Crimewave turns our most genteel city into a moshpit
Cities have personalities, they have a tone to their collective voice, and my former home town of Adelaide has a voice which can generally be described as courteous, civil, thoughtful, prepared to make a point, but also willing to listen.
My adoptive town of the past decade often finds itself at the other end of the register. Sydney is often so boisterous as to be uncouth. It can be pig-headed, abusive and rude. In its political and social discourse, Sydney’s general modus operandi is to start with a full-blown argument and work your way backwards towards civility from there.
But in the NSW school holiday fortnight just gone, which we passed happily back in SA, there was a very different edge to Adelaide’s voice. The normally sedate city sounded depressingly like Sydney at its unthinking and aggressive worst as its leaders and citizens dealt with a genuinely terrifying spate of crimes linked to the so-called Gang of 49.
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, it involved a six-week long series of extraordinary armed robberies on pubs, bakeries, shops, TABs and private homes by a bunch of criminals who are so brazen that they don’t even bother to wear masks, whose adult male number operate alongside kids believed to be as young as 12. Many of them are Aborigines, almost all of them are from dysfunctional backgrounds and appear to have been cutting their teeth on crimes of an increasingly serious nature over the past five years.
This type of stuff has not happened before in Adelaide, not on this scale, and it’s perfectly natural for the city not only to be outraged but to express its outrage with force.
But Adelaide can do a hell of a lot better than the chest-puffing, name-calling, and macho one-upsmanship which passed for discussion of this crime wave - and it was the state’s politicians who far and away were the worst offenders.
If you want to identify an exercise in dictionary-definition futility, I’d point to State Attorney-General Mick Atkinson’s declaration that the gang in its entirety is “pure evil”. The only thing a statement like that can do is inflame a situation that is already fiery. It fails to add any nuance or context to the circumstances surrounding this gang of criminals, surely not all of whom can be described as “pure evil” and therefore morally irredeemable - especially, I’d stress, the 12-year-olds.
(To pursue the Adelaide-as-Sydney crime theme, it’s interesting to note the personal and political closeness of Mike Rann and former NSW Premier Bob Carr, the latter of whom was returned for his second term in 1999 with an absurdly theatrical “tough on crime” campaign. In one advertisement, dubbed “Carr Noir”, the premier posed at night on a foggy railway platform, vowing to take back the streets from “young kids in backwards baseball hats”. Mick Atkinson’s rhetoric on this issue was straight out of the Carr playbook.)
Not to be outdone - well actually to be outdone quite badly given how lame the sledge was - the Opposition’s Vicki Chapman responded by labelling them “little turds”.
With the parameters set by both sides of politics, talkback went to town. ABC 891, normally as decorous as a high tea in Burnside, suddenly sounded like John Laws or Ray Hadley on a bad day. I heard one country caller say words to the effect that she was almost pleased that these little black so-and-sos were now terrorising people in the cities, as perhaps now the do-gooders would stop deriding country people as rednecks for complaining about crime.
This isn’t a piece written from the do-gooders perspective. The ringleaders of these crimes, and their most active co-conspirators, should feel the full weight of the law.
But it just seems massively dumb and ultimately counter-productive to say that this entire group are so irretrievably evil that they must all be rounded up and incarcerated in some hideous youth training centre, which is probably the best possible training ground for more spectacular future criminal ventures.
In my view the Gang of 49 case shows that there has to be some kind of middle way between the molly-coddling social worker pap which would treat all of these wrong-doers as the victims, and the death’s-too-good-for-them ratbaggery at the other end of the spectrum.
In Sydney I have got to know a very interesting and passionate bloke by the name of Chris Gardiner who runs the Police and Community Youth Clubs across NSW, where sworn police officers mainly use sport as a way of getting to kids who’ve gone off the rails. He talks about how there’s long been a flawed belief within policing that you are only ever doing your job if you pinch someone, and that the idea of spending an afternoon helping a kid who is training at boxing or playing rugby league, or even just talking to him, is an abstraction that has no bearing on public safety.
But for many of the cops who have become involved in the scheme, it’s been the most rewarding time in their careers - because through conversation they teach these messed-up kids who’ve never really had any proper attention from anyone about personal responsibility, about taking control of their own actions.
There is no PCYC scheme in SA and perhaps there should be. I would bet that if some of that current crop of kids - even some of the harder units at the upper eschelons of the Gang of 49 - had ever been exposed to this kind of attention they might have been steered towards a different path.
At a very confident guess, I’d say the one thing that unites the gang of 49 would be an absence of stable male role models in their lives. They would probably have all been reared almost single-handedly by a single mother and spent a limited amount of time in school with few male teachers. The only men of any standing they have ever come across are the older men who are trying to recruit them to a life of crime, or older men who are trying to arrest them.
The broader issue for Adelaide as it reflects on this crime wave is a simple case of reaping what you sow. Atkinson, a very morally-driven and intelligent man, would believe deep down that if you tell a bunch of people that they are scum and will always be scum, they will respond in kind. It was a lapse for him to say what he did. And everyone else who jumped on the bandwagon with him should have a think about it too.
Telling scarily violent, screwed-up kids that they will have never have anything to offer seems a good way to turn the gang of 49 into the gang of 59. Some hard, early conversations in an environment that’s safe and engaging could see the numbers start heading in the other direction.
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